Parashat Mishpatim begins with the laws of eved ivri – an indentured servant, who is to be released from service after six years, but has the option of remaining beyond six years. If he decides that he prefers the life of a servant and wishes to stay with his master, a special ritual is performed whereby his ear is pierced as a symbol of his status of permanent servitude (21:6). Rashi famously cites the Gemara’s comment (Kiddushin 22b) that the piercing of the servant’s ear is done as a punishment, of sorts, either for the his having stolen, on account of which he was forced to sell himself into servitude (to earn the money to repay what he stole), or for voluntarily extending his undesirable state of servitude.
Chizkuni, after citing and discussing Rashi’s comments, adds a different explanation for why the servant’s ear is pierced, noting that it serves to distinguish him from non-Jewish servants. Whereas Jewish servants must be offered to be released after six years, non-Jewish servants remain permanently in the master’s service unless the master is physically abusive. Therefore, Chizkuni comments, after a Jewish servant chooses to remain permanently in his master’s control, people who see him serving the master beyond six years might mistake him for a non-Jewish servant. For this reason, the Torah requires making a permanent, visible sign on his body that will make it clear to one and all that he is a full-fledged member of the Jewish Nation, despite his state of permanent servitude.
While at first glance it seems that this approach disagrees with Chazal’s explanation cited by Rashi, the Tolna Rebbe suggests that they in truth go hand-in-hand. Even as the servant is punished, he is given a very public reminder that he is still to be regarded as part of Am Yisrael. Although he has done something wrong warranting a painful, punitive measure, nevertheless, he should not be disrespected. Despite his wrong decision and his lowly status, we must nevertheless ensure to treat him with respect and not as an outsider.
The Rebbe added that Chizkuni’s comments remind us about the need to preserve a child or student’s dignity and self-respect even when punitive measures or harsh criticism is warranted. When a child’s “ear” requires “piercing” due to misconduct, he must be reassured that he will still continue to be loved and embraced. Even as he is censured or punished, he must be reminded that he will never be treated as an outsider, that he is still forever cherished and respected. Just as the servant is given a sign of his membership in God’s cherished nation at the very moment he is punished, we, too, must give children reassurance, encouragement and love even when disciplinary measures become necessary.